Kevin speaks to First Chop’s charismatic founder Rik Garner on their recent move to cans, range refinement and a commitment to gluten-free beer that is absolutely rooted in quality.
You’ve moved the full range into cans with some nicely redesigned artwork, why did you make this swap?
Demand. We found that as soon as we put a beer into cans, people wanted the cans and not bottles. So we made the decision that we’d stop bottling and go all into cans. Having said that, however, we will be bottling a beer next year. It’s a one-off. We haven’t finalised the recipe yet.
The original brewery that we started brewing in 2013 has moved premises once, has been stretched once – we put half as much capacity on it again by welding an extra bit on top of it – it’s been destroyed by fire and rebuilt once, and now it’s going to find a new home with somebody else. We are getting a larger capacity, more efficient brewery. Our final brew in the old brewery is going to be a very special beer to celebrate that brewery and that is going to be bottled rather than canned. It’s pencilled in at the moment as a barley wine so it’s going to be a very strong, very good celebration of that brewery that’s going to age in the bottle.
Your range seems to be getting bigger and better all the time, do you have plans to keep introducing new beers?
I think the range is as big as we ever wanted it to be – and probably bigger than we ever wanted it to be, at the moment. What we are going to do is settle down on a permanent range and some of the beers are going to become less permanent. Maybe they’ll get replaced, become seasonal or the recipe might completely change. Over the past 12 months, all of our recipes have been tweaked. The past 12 months for us has been all about improving our quality. We’re reaching a point now where some of our recipes, I don’t think could be improved upon.
It’s also our processes like how we put it into the can, how we put it into kegs and how we move it from one place to another. I’m always trying to streamline things and make every part of the process better. It’s impossible to do with a brewery you start in a railway arch with 20,000 quid you got from borrowing some money from a few of your mates and selling your car, it was impossible to have the kind of quality control that we’re now able to have after six years of investing every penny we’ve ever made back into the business.
We now have co-head brewers, one is a science expert and one is a brewing expert. We’ve installed a lab, so we’ve got really high-tech lab equipment now. So, we’re just working really really hard on improving the quality and improving the consistency as well.
I’ve gone completely off on a tangent and answered a completely different question than the one you asked, haven’t I? You asked me about the range! So, what’s going to happen with the range is there’s some firm favourites in there that we will always brew. I would say that the latest incarnation of JAM is the JAM that I wanted it to be the first time I brewed it, and it’s taken us a while to get there with tiny little improvements along the way. There’s some that I think we can still improve and there’s some that I think maybe this should be an entirely different beer. I don’t know if we’ll retire those beers or if we’ll just make those once a year, or if we’ll change the recipes and… I’m just rambling now, aren’t I?
Two of your latest beers are lagers that you’ve realised in nice, big, tall cans – what can you tell us about those, how do they differ and why did you go for the big cans?
We had a customer who specifically wanted 440ml cans of lager and when we looked at the lager market, it seemed that people wanted bigger cans of lager. I don’t know if that’s based on any kind of science or anything but just from chatting with people about, it seemed that it would be a more popular size and that it differentiated it from the rest of the range. It’s meant to be a separate, slightly different range.
One is a pilsner and one’s a helles. We just really wanted to make a proper lager the right way, you know. It’s bottom fermented. It’s matured for a long time. We don’t rush it. We can’t make that much of it because we don’t have enough tanks. Otherwise, all our tanks would be full of lager and we wouldn’t brew anything else. It occupies one of our tanks for almost two months. Whereas any of our other beers will occupy our tanks for less than two weeks. If the demand for it gets bigger, we’ll invest in separate tanks.
We didn’t really want to mess with the styles. We’ve not tried to do anything crazy. We’ve just tried to make a really, really good example of the styles. Of a helles and pilsner that stays faithful to the originals. Again, it’s all about quality. Using the best quality ingredients and letting them shine.
We’re not reinventing the wheel, just making a really, really good, very, very round wheel.
Even as the range has expanded, changed and improved – making gluten-free, vegan-friendly beer has been a core thing to First Chop. Why was this important to you and why does it continue to be important to you?
The original reason why I made gluten-free beer, and vegan beer, is because beer doesn’t have to not be vegan-friendly – and really well-made beer is gluten-free. The one difference between our beer when it wasn’t gluten-free and now that it is gluten-free is that we test it. Again, it’s been a process of quality control. Of making every brew the same way, improving our processes and getting to that point when your final product comes out of the tank and we test it, you’ve got rid of all that protein – which is the gluten. Because no beer wants that in anyway.
Every brewer is trying to remove gluten from their beer as they make it and many brewers are extremely successful in that because that’s part of the process of making beer. The better you get at it and the more you get it, the closer you get to below that 20 parts per million which says it’s gluten-free. It’s gluten-free because it’s very good beer. That’s sort of blowing my own trumpet but the way you make gluten-free beer is by focussing on making very good beer.
It’s about making our beers accessible to as many people as possible. It’s the same with isinglass finings. There are alternatives to isinglass finings which is what makes a beer nonvegan. It’s a fish product – swim bladders. It’s a processing aid that there’s alternatives to and it doesn’t improve the taste of the beer. All it does is it speeds something up. So if you’re can live with it happening a bit slower, then your beer can be vegan. And if you’re putting your beer into cans and into kegs, you don’t really need to have it anyway.
If anyone is trying your beers for the first time, is there anything you’d want them to know about First Chop?
The reason why I’ve gone on this journey making beer is so that they can sit down and enjoy the end product. From the very early days where I borrowed somebody’s brewery and I made my first batch to now when we’ve become more successful, it’s all been about that moment when they’re sitting there and enjoying that beer. And the same goes for our entire team.
Our head brewers are extremely proud of their product. They are so passionate that the products that they’re making taste good. I guess that’s what I’d like people to know.
Originally published in Issue 22. Written by Kevin O’Donnell